Atomic Balls and Eiffel Towers
Written by Peyton February 14, 2014
Where to even begin… This past weekend was our first extended travel break, spanning from Thursday to Sunday. It began when we booked it to the airport in Venice at 6am to head to Brussels, Belgium. Once we landed in Brussels, we walked for about 2 miles with all of our bags in hand until we found our hostel. We were really nervous about our decision because we started in a scary, dirty part of the city but once we saw our hostel everything started looking up. We were right on the river (where all the finer things are in Brussels) and in good walking distance of the city center. Once we dropped off our backpacks, we started walking to find out if these so-called Belgian Waffles lived up to the hype. We didn’t make it very far though. Before we found waffles, we found a pub that looked pretty welcoming, as we had been walking around in the cold rain. We tried many different types of Belgian beer during happy hour, including a local sour beer (yes its sour, no its not as bad as it sounds) and finishing it all off with cider.
After the pub, we finally found the waffles. Now these are not your Momma’s waffles, nor are they the knock-offs from iHop. The waffle I ordered was fresh, warm and crispy, smothered in hot, melted Nutella, topped with a generous helping of fresh strawberries and about a 3-inch layer of whipped cream. If that isn’t enough, the whole waffle was covered in an abundant drizzle of melted chocolate. My only complaint (other than wanting another right now) is that they hand this waffle to you and expect you to eat it like street food, without proper utensils to try and tackle this monstrous dessert. I was perfectly content after my Belgian waffle experience, so I would have loved Brussels no matter how the rest of the trip went. But that was just the start of an awesome day (and night) in Brussels.
From there we did a lot of sight seeing, and headed back to the hostel for a quick nap to cure our waffle coma. We woke up just in time to grab a quick bite to eat at a sandwich shop and then made it just in time for our guided beer tour. It was only €15 a person and we got a free drink at every bar we went to. A local Belgian twenty-something named PJ led the pub-crawl and he had the best night job around. He took us to 5 bars total, all very unique in their own way. The first bar was relaxing as we sat there introducing ourselves to the others on the tour: a group of Australians, and a group of 16-year old Austrian boys finding a way to entertain themselves on a field trip. It was really cool talking to people with such different experiences and opinions about the world. From there we went to a hidden bar down an ally from the main square, on the second story of a building. It was called the Crypt- it had red lighting and was decorated with skulls and cross bones. We were given a free shot of Finnish vodka, which was… an experience. We hung out in the lounge by coffin-shaped coffee tables for a while before we made our way to the next few bars, one filled with a jazz band, another with an open dance floor and the next with a cover band playing all the classics. The last bar we stayed at wasn’t free, but had €1 beers all night and an open dance floor. We danced all night with Belgians (PJ also joined us) to songs ranging from Summer Lovin’ from Greece to Latin salsa music. Once we left the bar, we went to get a Kebab sandwich (the only restaurants that stay open late in Europe) then called it a night. I had the time of my life spending my night meeting new people from around the world and experiencing such a different culture – a culture that knows how to let lose and have fun at the end of the day. I have quickly come to realize how jealous I am that Europeans are able to leave all their stress behind once the sun is down and just relax with the ones they love along with the new friends they make in the process. This is definitely something I will take back with me to The States.
The next day was a fun filled, cold, rainy adventure of sight seeing. Our first stop was at a unique, hipster-esque cafe where we indulged on sandwiches and cappuccinos. If that wasn’t enough, we wandered to the Brussels’ Chinatown where we heard had really good Chinese food. Once we were done with our breakfast/lunch we found our way to the Belgian chocolate shops in the city center. What made these shops so magical is that they all let you sample the chocolates before you bought them- so what did I do? I sampled tons of chocolate until my hearts desired in and out the chocolate shops along the square. We shopped a while longer, looking at mugs in beer stores and peeing statues in the souvenir shops. We never found the little guy, but Brussels is well known for Mannekin Pis–a statue of a little boy peeing in a fountain. He is only about 2 feet tall and tucked on the corner of a street. This statue is to Brussels as the Statue of Liberty is to Manhattan, but I’m not too upset we didn’t see it because there were copies of it all around the city. Once we got tired of walking around, we got on the metro and headed out of the city a bit to go see the Atomium which is a very unique piece of architecture represents a single atom of iron crystal blown up 165 billion times. The atom is made up of 9 stainless steel spheres connected up by tubes and is the size of an office building. The coolest part about it is that we were able to go up inside it. The tube in the middle shoots you straight up to the highest ball in an elevator. From there, you can see all of Brussels and more. Brussels has a park called “Mini Europe” next to The Atom, which showcases miniature models of the major landmarks in all of Europe. It was really cool to get a bird’s-eye-view of the places we have been and the places we want to go. You travel to the rest of the spheres through elevators in the tubes connecting the atom. They were really steep and scary, but were filled with colored, flashing lights like a rave. The Atom was an overall awesome, unique experience and a must-see if you’re going to Brussels.
After we saw The Atomium and experienced a full day of Belgian waffles, chocolate and beer, we got on a high-speed train (goes 190 mph at one point) to go to Paris. We arrived around 11 and got on the metro to drop our bags off at the hostel. We made our way towards The Eiffel Tower to see it light up before we ate a much-needed dinner. The lights of the Eiffel Tower sparkle at night on the hour every hour before midnight, and we were approaching it right as the clock was about to strike 12. We ran underneath it and kept on going until we reached the gardens so we could get a clear view when it lit up. The tower was so majestic; I felt like I was in a movie. I have seen this iconic monument in pictures thousands of times throughout my life, but nothing compares to the feeling I got in my stomach as I stared at the twinkling lights illuminate the midnight sky. Once we woke up from our trance and were done taking pictures, we headed in search of a café to eat. We found a perfect, quaint bistro where I ordered a crepe filled with ham and cheese and topped with a fried egg. Yes, it was as delicious as it sounds and no, I cannot tell you why America has not jumped on the “let’s put a fried egg on top of everything” bandwagon. Our table decided to order a bottle of champagne to celebrate our arrival to The City of Love, but forgot to specify which one we wanted off the menu. Because of this mistake, we were served a €80 bottle of bubbly but it was so good I don’t even regret it. We ended the night strolling through the beautiful streets of Paris.
Because we didn’t have long in such a big city, we decided not to waste any time. We woke up bright and early and headed right back to the Eiffel Tower. We walked around underneath and people-watched for a bit. There were French guards walking around in camouflage uniforms holding machine guns, which was strange to me. The line was really long for the elevator up so we decided to take the stairs (such a bad idea). It wasn’t that bad of a walk though, because we could only go to the lower observation decks. The wind was so strong that day that they closed the top of the tower. Once we got to the observation deck we could see all of Paris; it was so beautiful! We relaxed for a while and then went back down and walked to the Arc de Triomphe. There was so much traffic that we just decided to look at it from the sidewalk, but it was so big! From there, we walked down Avenue des Champs-Elysées, which is a famous tree-lined boulevard full of expensive boutiques. We did some shopping, went to the massive Louis Vuitton store and my favorite part – the famous Ladurée macaroon shop! These delicate cookies were about €1,50 a piece, but it was totally worth all 6 that I bought. They were all so rich in their unique flavors, such as orange blossom, raspberry and praline.
From there we window-shopped a bit longer, keeping an eye out for the Ferraris and Porsches driving by. We found a bar a little off of the avenue and sat down to have lunch. I was pleasantly surprised when I looked at the menu to see this little bar had traditional French food! I had wonderful grilled salmon and basil pesto mashed potatoes that came with French cheeses and a baguette. Some others ordered steak tartare (finely chopped raw beef), which was also excellent! From there we made our way to Notre Dame de Paris Cathedral. I am so happy that we came at the time we did because there were no crowds at all. It was elaborately decorated in stained glass windows and marble. There were adoration rooms lining the walls, which all had different themes with frescoes, woodwork and artistic designs. We sat down and relaxed in the peaceful sanctuary, which was a nice change of pace to such a busy, exhausting day. Outside of Notre Dame, we found the best crepes I have ever had. I don’t know how he did it or what made them so special, but I couldn’t get enough of my Nutella and banana crepe. I definitely could have eaten 3 more and been completely satisfied with myself.
We walked around some other shopping areas, people-watching as musicians were playing accordions and trumpets hoping to get a few euros tossed their way. As it started raining, we decided to go back to the hostel and relax before dinner. My girlfriends and I went to the pizzeria next to the hostel and split a pizza that rivaled some that I have had in Italy as we sipped on Limoncello. Once the boys were ready to go, we all went to a café and ate dinner. After having the pizza, I was looking for something less expensive because Paris had burned a hole in my pocket. The cheapest item on the menu was escargot so I decided to be adventurous. They were served in the shell, coming with utensils I had no idea how to use. They were baked in butter, garlic and parsley. It wasn’t graceful, but escargot was one of my favorite meals I have had in Europe thus far. I couldn’t help but soak up the rest of the butter with the French baguette it was served with, and then washed down with refreshing champagne. While I was in this trance from all the delicious food I had consumed the whole day, I went ahead and ordered crème brûlée, which was no mistake. I had high expectations because this is one of my favorite desserts, and I was not let down. Even though I was full, I had no problem finishing it. This meal was the perfect way to end such a wonderful day in Paris.
We had come to Paris with a long list of attractions to cross off and were determined not to waste any time. We woke up early Sunday morning and made it to the Louvre right when it opened. I knew this was the biggest museum in the world, but that didn’t keep my jaw from dropping when we arrived. Not only is it just a massive horseshoe-shaped building, but it also goes underground for levels and levels. It is like the size of a small country. We arrived early enough not to have to wait in lines, so we followed the map to go see our favorite artwork. The entrances are divided into themed departments, but we only had time to go to the French, Roman, and Spanish section called the Denon Wing. It is said that if you look at each piece of art for 3 seconds, it would take at least 3 years to get through the whole museum. With that being said, we didn’t even scratch the surface, but what I did get the chance to see I enjoyed very much. I saw many pieces of Da Vinci and Michelangelo, which were my favorite parts. I saw The Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo, Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss, Virgin on the Rocks, The Raft of Medusa, Liberty Leading the People and many, many more. I can’t wait to come back and be able to see the whole collection one day.
After the Louvre, we went to Montmarte, which is a hill in northern Paris. The Basilica of the Sacré Cœur majestically sits on top of the hill. We sat on the steps and soaked in the view of all of Paris before we went to a café and had quiche and sandwiches for lunch. We spent the rest of the day relaxing and strolling around before we made our way back to the airport to go home.
My first extended travel weekend was filled with the best food I have ever had. From Belgian waffles and French crepes to sour beer and expensive champagne, I never stayed hungry for long. I had the time of my life in Brussels and Paris was such a magical, romantic city. I can’t wait to go back one day and see more, but now I must spend my time planning my ski trip this upcoming weekend!